Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2009

Black is…Black ain’t; Adam Clayton Powell

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

In conjunction with Black History Month, Docuramafilms, a distribution company that specializes in cutting-edge movies, sent me  a couple of first-rate documentaries that are available from Netflix. The first was Marlon Riggs’s “Black Is…Black Ain’t”, an examination of the contradictions of Black identity that first aired on PBS in the late 1990s. As a gay African-American, Riggs was particularly attuned to homophobia in the Black community. He died of AIDS in 1994 and the film was completed by his supporters. The second is “Adam Clayton Powell”, an absolutely stunning portrait of the U.S.’s most powerful Black politician from the 1930s to his death of cancer in 1972. Seen together, these films help us understand the complexities of Black identity and politics.

An analysis of Marlon Rigg’s movie with clips

“Black Is…Black Ain’t” begins by reminding us of the importance of Black nationalism in the 1960s. Before the 1960s, as a number of the interviewees point out, there was no bigger insult than being called “Black” except to be called an “African”. Once nationalist sentiment permeated the Black population, the word Black replaced Negro. As one interviewee points out, this was probably the first time that African-Americans defined themselves, as opposed to being defined by others. The same thing was true with African identity. People began to be proud of their ethnic origins and made an effort to connect with the mother continent culturally and politically. This meant, as Angela Davis points out, allowing one’s hair to assume its naturally kinky look. She remembers being at a summer camp for Black children in the 1950s when a rain storm begins. All the other girls rush for cover since they worried that the rain would ruin their straightened hair while she lingered in the rain.

Despite its progressive dynamic, Black Nationalism did present challenges to some Black people who did not fit the mold. Barbara Smith discovered that other activists resented her because her speech was not “Black” enough. Michelle Wallace found macho attitudes in the movement so off-putting that she was inspired to write “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman” in 1979. She states that the book made her a persona non grata in some Black political circles.

While everybody understands the central role of the Black church in politics and sustaining the community, Riggs hones in on the problem of the kind of social conservatism that allowed some pastors to back the anti-gay marriage referendum in California. He also interviews one Black teenager in Mississippi who became fed up with the church after a friend was forced to stand in the corner of her living room with the bible in her hand for hours on end repeatedly.

Rigg’s goal was to explode the myth that Black America is monolithic and succeeds admirably. As an interviewee in his own movie, often from a hospital ward fighting off another AIDS attack, he hearkens back to his home in Texas, where his mom made the best gumbo in town. She had the knack for making everything blend together, from crab’s legs to sausages. That was his hope for Black America as well.

A trailer for Adam Clayton Powell documentary

In his prime, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the most recognizable Black politician in the world, probably rivaling Barack Obama today. Narrated by Julian Bond, Richard Kilberg’s 56 minute documentary is a totally compelling story of a tarnished hero. Unlike Obama, Powell was not interested in mainstream acceptance. Also, unlike Obama, Powell’s political power derived from his participation in mass struggles.

As the son of the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church–Harlem’s largest–Powell assumed his father’s post not long after graduating college in 1930. He returned to an economically ravaged Harlem that was desperate for leadership of the kind that Powell would supply. He used his church as an organizing center and led militant demonstrations to desegregate the shops that lined 125th street, the main drag. As hard as it is to believe, it was impossible for Blacks to get jobs as clerks in the stores that they patronized in their own neighborhood.

Powell was elected to city council and not long afterwards, when Harlem was allocated its own congressional district, became the first African-American member of the House of Representatives ever elected from the North. This was at a time when Dixiecrats were openly racist, including one Congressman who said that he would never sit next to a “colored man”. In a display of defiance, Powell made a point of taking the nearest open seat to this racist. One day, the racist changed seats 6 times, and each time Powell took a nearby seat.

In another manner distinguished from Obama, who seems bent on presenting his family as a kind of latter-day Norman Rockwell portrait, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. lived what can only be described as a “flashy” life-style. He liked to go nightclubbing and was something of a lothario, even when he was married. His second wife was Hazel Scott, the jazz pianist who used to perform regularly at Café Society, where the two were married. Although the documentary does not address this point, Scott was close to the Communist Party while Café Society was owned by Barney Josephson, a Communist. Café Society was famous for treating Black and white customers alike and encouraged politically-oriented performances, like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

At the height of his power, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, Powell used his chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee to sponsor bills that were the crown jewels of LBJ’s Great Society.

Lavishing in his fame and power, Powell resented other civil rights leaders who might steal his thunder. He dismissed Whitney Young Jr. as “Whitey” Young and was positively hateful toward Martin Luther King Jr., to the point that he spread rumors that King and Bayard Rustin, a homosexual, were lovers. According to the wiki on Powell, he forced Bayard Rustin to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1960 by threatening to discuss Rustin’s “immoral” homosexuality in Congress.

As his power increased in Congress, Powell began to rest on his laurels and spend more and more time at his luxurious hideaway in Bimini, in the Bahamas. Despite having the worst absentee record in the House, Harlem residents kept reelecting him. But repeated improprieties eventually persuaded his fellow Congressman to remove him from office, a determination no doubt strengthened by a racism that had by this time had learned to avoid the obviousness of the Dixiecrat era.

Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that Powell had been unfairly stripped of his powers and allowed him to take office again, but Congress stripped him of his all-powerful chairmanship. Since he was now weakened by cancer, he lacked the strength to regain his old position and died in 1972.

The interviewees are a virtual who’s who of the civil rights movement, ranging from Roger Wilkins to Julius Lester. This movie, like Marlon Rigg’s, is essential viewing at a time when Black identity and politics are in the foreground in a way that Adam Clayton Powell would never have imagined.


  1. The Supreme Court did not actually make the House seat Powell. His suit was decided well after his term in that particular Congress had expired. The Court ruled that the Congress which had excluded him could not exclude an otherwise constitutionally qualified winner at the point where such a winner presents his Certificate of Election. But, since that and every Congress lasts only two years and the House which refused to seat him was already over and gone, Powell won his lawsuit yet received no specific relief. The reason he was subsequently seated was because a new Congress did not follow the previous one and did not challenge his new election. One thing had nothing to do with the other. Frankly, Powell would have been reseated, when he was, even had he lost his Supreme Court case because we are not talking about the same Congress.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 6, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  2. Nice offering, Louis. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about the work of Marlon Riggs. Like many black artists whose work really pushed against the perimeters, Rigg’s stuff occupies that sort of limbo that’s inhabited by Joe Beame,Audre Lorde, Robert Colescott, Darius James, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Jean Toomer, June Jordan, many others. Their lives and effort have always been that of stirring the “gumbo”,pushing us as a people to embrace the complexity of black experience in the Americas. And in a country as racially stratified as this one is, that is one tough gig. It’s easier for us to gouge each other then it is to be who we are. No surprises. When life is a siege for so many of us, the suitable mentality arises.

    By the time I was aware of who Adam Clayton Powell was, he was already tripping over these internalized contradictions, and had become a laughing point for television comics and variety shows. It was as if nothing he accomplished thirty years before was of any significance, and I remember my parents were embarassed by his presence in congress in the late sixties.

    It is the lack of connection with any of this history or experience in any depth that I distrust in the Obamian trend and its followers. But, like many black people, I ended up voting for him out of a crazy expectation that there might actually be this consciousness stirring underneath the spectacle. Wrong again.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — February 7, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  3. I don’t know if either Charles Hamilton’s biography or the movie you review here take a closer look at Powell’s relationship to the Harlem branch of the Communist Party, Black Communist City Council Member (and CP Central Committee man) Ben Davis, and the Harlem left in general. We do know that the CP played a major role in Powell’s election to the City Council in 1941 and his subsequent election to Congress in 1944, that Powell and the Party worked closely together on several of the 1930’s job discrimination boycotts in Harlem, and that Powell was part of the Negro National Congress in which the CP played a pivotal, and sometimes divisive, role. Of course, he was also quick to embrace anti-communism in the 1950s when it suited his career to do so.

    Comment by burghardt — February 8, 2009 @ 7:24 am

  4. Burghardt, it is has been a very long time since I read Michael Denning’s book on the Popular Front (ie., New Deal) but I do recall the Hazel Scott connection. I didn’t mention it in the review but Powell played a very bad role at the Bandung conference in 1955 (I believe) helping to defeat a motion that attacked US imperialism. He got a red carpet treatment from the State Department on his return.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 8, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  5. […] Black is…Black ain’t; Adam Clayton Powell – Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Friday Open Thread (Kinda)Help Win The Rally Against Cancer In HarlemSHIRT KING PHADE Up on Adam Clayton Powell […]

    Pingback by Adam Clayton Powell was a homophobe! – Marlon Riggs: Black is Black ain’t – « Fading Ad Blog by Frank H. Jump — January 18, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  6. […] Black is…Black ain’t; Adam Clayton Powell – Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by – – – Adam Clayton Powell was a homophobe! – – – Marlon Riggs: Black Is, Black Ain't – Deconstruction to Reconstruction: Marlon Riggs & Blackness – Fading Ad Blog — June 16, 2010 @ 3:45 am

  7. he died a very unhappy black man

    Comment by anynomous — August 15, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

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